According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, human kind is to "Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." In some interpretations, this enforces the idea that humans are the ultimate rulers of the earth, and are separate from, or even superior to, the plants and animals that surround us.
Jeff Schweitzer, 51, evolutionary biologist and former Clinton White House science advisor, vehemently opposes ideas of humankind's dominance over nature, and sees religious morality as a negative force. He explains his ideas about the adverse effects of religiously based morality in his new book:Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World. Schweitzer will be discussing his book at the Center for Inquiry (CFI) (350 Canal Walk, Suite A, Indianapolis) on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m.
"I don't believe at all that religion is essential to morality," said Schweitzer during a phone interview. "[Cosmic Dice] is devoted specifically to demonstrating, in my opinion quite adequately, that religion is not only not necessary, but actually impedes our morality by offering a false choice."
By "false choice," Schweitzer explained that religion bribes us with promises of eternal bliss or eternal damnation. For Schweitzer, the moral code of evolutionary biology is much stronger.
Tens of thousand of years ago humans did not drive through wilderness tamed by endless highways. We scavenged the earth and hid from fierce, hungry predators. There was no writing system, and the only law was eat or be eaten. Schweitzer believes humans could not have survived this period without developing ethical and moral standards by which they could live together. He argues that this is the period when human morality was born.
Schweitzer held the position of chief environmental officer at the Agency for International Development. This is when he began to believe that a deeply embedded religious perspective was manipulating our perspective on foreign policy and the environment.
During our conversation, Schweitzer quoted a line from Genesis, "We are to fill the earth, and subdue it."
"That's exactly what we've done," he added. "And with that religious mandate we are told that all the earth's resources are put here for our benefit and our use. That's the other big area where I realize that we really do need to rethink what we think it is to be moral, and what sort of policies we implement around our world."
Criticism of his interpretation of the biblical verse is not new to Schweitzer. One instance can be heard on the Gregory Mantell show where a debate took place between Schweitzer and Elijah, author of "The Underground Bible," a blog that aims to counter myths about the Bible.
Elijah had this to say: "[Schweitzer] takes a passage from the New Testament and says Jesus said hate your mother and father or you're not worthy of me, he says Jesus said rip out your right eye if it offends you. What he doesn't get is the essence of sarcasm that Jesus contained? Guys like [Schweitzer] take the Bible and twist it to fit their own ideas. They want to rip it down."
Schweitzer realizes that many Christians and Americans are opposed to his ideas. "I do feel like I'm fighting an uphill battle, but I do not by any means think it's hopeless," he said. He admitted to not having delusions about changing people's minds, but expressed the strong desire to present his ideas.
Problem with politics
Schweitzer urged that we have to act quickly to avoid climate change catastrophe. According to him, President Bush reversed many positive Clinton environmental policies. Schweitzer recited a list of environmental conundrums, which included relaxed standards for air and water pollutions, opening of national forests to logging and mining, and cessation of funding for protection of tropical rain forests. The list went on.
"We really moved backwards significantly over the last 8 years," said Schweitzer.
The effect of religion on U.S. foreign policy was not lost on Schweitzer. He served as assistant director at the White House Office of Science and Technology, and from this perch he could see the negative impact of what he described as "narrow religious views."
As an example, Schweitzer cited the 1985 Mexico City Policy. According to the U.S. Government website, this policy made the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) withhold aid from any non-government organizations (NGOs) in the developing world that "use non-USAID funds to engage in a wide range of activities, including providing advice, counseling, or information regarding abortion, or lobbying a foreign government to legalize or make abortion available."
Many of the NGOs affected were hospitals that provided the only primary care for women, and were the only places where children could be vaccinated, said Schweitzer.
"So, because of a very narrow religious perspective, we were affecting negatively the lives of hundreds of millions of woman and children around the world? That's one of many things that got me to thinking that maybe the moral basis of what we're doing might need to be re-thought," said Schweitzer.
Keeping on the sunny side
Backing away from the gloom and doom of his reality, the scientist says that he likes to inject humor into his lectures. He admitted that you can expect one hour of very dense information about who we are and where we can go, but he also wants to move from talking about religion like it is taboo.
"I like to take a light touch on this subject when I talk about it, and my emphasis is that we humans are not special. We don't have a special place in the world because we're not made in the image of God. We're just another animal; we need to take a more humble approach. By taking that humble approach, we will be more adapted for a sustainable future."
The CFI was founded by Paul Kurtz in 1991. Kurtz has been a leading intellectual and organizational figure in the humanist movement, and has spent much of his life scrutinizing religion, and believes that it is necessary to build a viable alternative to it. Aside from serving as chair emeritus of CFI, Kurtz is also the editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry Magazine and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
According to their website, the CFI is "devoted to promoting science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values." Aside from hosting discussions and lectures, the CFI furthers its goals through education, publishing, advocacy and social services. Although the center is opposed to religion in our politics, it does not oppose the practice of religion. CFI is affiliated with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. You can visit the CFI Indianapolis website at http://www.centerforinquiry.net/indy.